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Australia: rent models “prey” on international students, report

Harsher penalties and stricter oversight must be enacted to combat landlords exploiting international students as part of their business model, a report by the University of New South Wales Human Rights Clinic has found.

Significant changes are required to combat accommodation exploitation. Photo: Brandon Griggs/UnsplashSignificant changes are required to combat accommodation exploitation. Photo: Brandon Griggs/Unsplash

"It makes good business sense for rogue landlords to exploit international students"

The No Place Like Home report, which looked into the vulnerabilities of international students within Sydney’s housing market, found systematic exploitation against overseas students with little assistance for prevention or to recoup losses.

“If they have nowhere to live, study doesn’t really become their first priority”

“We have a really unfortunate situation at the moment where it makes good business sense for rogue landlords to exploit international students,” said Bassina Farbenblum, one of the report’s authors.

“There’s very little chance that they’re going to be caught and if they are, the penalties are fairly low,” she continued, adding that while the report was focussed on Sydney, the results were applicable to the whole of Australia.

According to the report’s findings, the most common problems faced by international students were scams and bond issues, representing just under two-thirds of all reported incidents.

“There is a range of problems that international students encounter; many of them pay money upfront for a room that they find online,” Farbenblum said.

“When they get here, often the room is different from what they found, or even in some cases doesn’t exist.”

Other areas of concern for international students include landlords seeking a bond larger than legally allowed, substantially increasing rent mid-lease, and charging exorbitant rates for basic utilities and repairs. Sudden evictions, harassment from landlords and other tenants, and overcrowding were also common.

Taking in survey responses as well as direct interviews, the impact of exploitation was found to have substantial health, academic and financial impacts on international students.

“Accommodation is the foundation of their life – sometimes students have to spend lots of time to find accommodation… [and so] have less time to study,” said one interviewee within accommodation services.

“They know they have to study, but if they have nowhere to live, study doesn’t really become their first priority.”

A lack of pre-arrival services and information was exacerbating the issue as well as a limited supply of accommodation options tailored to international students’ needs, and Farbenblum told The PIE News many landlords and scammers were targeting overseas students because of this.

“We do see a lot of international students organising their accommodation from their home country on online platforms,” she said.

“They don’t know local housing conditions, they don’t know their legal rights, and so they’re really vulnerable to deception in that context.”

She added services were still limited for international students attempting to recover losses and many were concerned that making a complaint would impact their visa, despite tenancy law not being related.

“This is not going to be resolved with minor tinkering around the edges”

“There really is a very clear demand for services both in terms of finding safe accommodation within the rental market and within share houses… but also when things do go wrong, getting advice on legal rights and their options,” Farbenblum said.

The report’s recommendations include improving access to adequate housing, boosting tenancy services, and information sharing amongst vested parties, such as local councils, state government, service providers and police.

Rights and access to justice must also be strengthened, the report found, with substantial changes to legislation to combat unfair evictions, reduce confusion around leases, and increase consideration of students’ visa status to expedite hearings before they leave the country.

“This is not going to be resolved with minor tinkering around the edges,” Farbenblum said.

“It does need major disruptions to these business models so that it’s no longer profitable to run exploitative accommodation practices where you just churn through international student after international student, and no one’s going to say anything.”

According to Farbenblum, discussions with government stakeholders are already underway.

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